The 85th Light Infantry in North America 1812 - 1815.
After arduous service in Spain, across the Pyrenees and in Southern France between 1811-14, the 85th LI was one of the British regiments dispatched to the United States to take part in the war which had been flickering along the Canadian frontier since 1812.
The 85th on the Nivelle, 1813 : Simkin watercolour.
After the Peninsular War.
When the war ended, the 85th was in Bordeaux in southern France and was one of the regiments released to join General Robert Ross's expeditionary force to Chesapeake Bay in the USA.
Other ex-Peninsular regiments present on the campaign - all of which were severely understrength - were the 1st-4th, 1st-44th and 1st-21st Regiments, with detachments of Royal Marines, a Rocket Battery of the Royal Artillery and other support troops like Sappers and Miners. The whole force numbered only 4,500 men.
Chesapeake Bay to Washington, 1814.
The 85th Light Infantry on the Potomac, 1814. An officer, a bugler and two soldiers of the 85th in the US in 1814. Major General Ross's army left Bordeaux in southern France on 1st June 1814 and crossed to New England via Bermuda.
So far, the British, previously too heavily engaged in Spain and France to divert resources to an unwanted war with the United States, had restricted their military activity to the Canadian frontier and the Great Lakes.
Now, free from worries about Napoleon in Europe, the British were to strike at the US itself. Ross's army landed unopposed in Chesapeake Bay on 20th August and marched straight for the newly-designated capital, Washington. The site of their camp on the night of Augst 23rd was close to what is now the Andrews Airforce Base.
By midday on August 24th 1814, Ross's army, led by the light infantry brigade, was approaching the village of Bladensburg. Clearing a rise in the road (now Highway 201), they saw the American force drawn up on a hillside on the far side of the river Anacostia (a branch of the Potomac).
Just outside the city, an American army under General William Winder prepared to bar their way.
The Battle of Bladensburg, August 24th 1814
Watercolour (c. 1840) of the Colour of the 1st Harford Light Dragoons (of Maryland) captured at Blandensburg and now in the Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle.
Estimates put Winder's force at around 6,500 men, but it was a very mixed, "scratch" force, comprising largely understrength and inexperienced local militias, reinforced by a few regular soldiers and volunteer riflemen. Its strongest component was probably the naval contingent under Commodore Joshua Barney.
The engagement which followed lasted for three hours, the light troops leading the British attack and being supported in the final charges by the line infantry of the 2nd Brigade. It resulted in the complete defeat of Winder's army, which was driven from the field.
Nevertheless, it was not an easy victory: the 85th lost 2 officers and 13 other ranks killed and 11 officers and 53 other ranks wounded.
The total American casualties have been put at 150 killed and wounded and 120 men captured, along with 10 field guns.
The defeat of the American force blocking the route to Washington opened the way for an advance into the city itself.
The Burning of Washington
A contemporary print of the burning of Washington.
The 3rd Brigade of Ross's army (not engaged at Bladensburg) entered Washington on the afternoon of August 24th. By convention, no damage was to be inflicted on the city or its inhabitants if they quietly accepted the occupation and went about their business.
However, using the excuse that a shot was fired at Ross from one of the houses, the British began the systematic destruction of the public buildings of the city.
A distinction was drawn between private property - to be left alone - and government property, which was utterly destroyed. This included the new Senate House, the President's house (now the White House), the new dockyard and arsenal, barracks, store-houses, a frigate and other shipping.
Even the new Library was burned, along with many of the national archives of the new republic.
Next day, Ross's force withdrew and returned to the fleet anchored in Chesapeake Bay.
Failure at Baltimore
Brevet Major (later Colonel) Robert Gubbins commanded the 85th at Baltimore and for much of the New Orleans campaign.
On September 12th, Ross's army landed near Baltimore in an attempt to take the city. However, in a severe action outside the city, Ross was killed and a planned attack on the city's strong defences was abandoned.
It is said that Francis Scott Key, then a prisoner aboard a British warship, wrote the poem, "The Star Spangled Banner", which provided the words of the US national anthem, when he saw the American flag still flying over Baltimore as the British withdrew.
The Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8th, 1815
The British force sailed for Jamaica in October 1814 and here joined a new, larger expeditionary force under Sir Edward Packenham. Their goal was the city of New Orleans - not only to inflict severe economic damage on the USA but also to draw US troops away from the Canadian frontier.
The initial operations and advance went very well but the attack on the strongly fortified city was a disaster. A series of simple frontal assaults against the heavily entrenched and well-armed forces of Andrew Jackson were defeated with great loss. Packenham and 2,000 British troops were killed, for a loss of only 21 Americans.
The 85th played no part in this. They were detailed to cross the Mississippi and capture enemy gun emplacements enfilading (firing into the flank of) the British force as it advanced. The batteries were easily overwhelmed and the 85th remained in that position as the battle unfolded across the river.
With the final defeat of British attempts to break the American defence lines, the 85th re-crossed the Mississippi and joined the general withdrawal to the fleet.
It later transpired that the battle had been fought after the sigining of a peace treaty (Treaty of Ghent)between the USA and Great Britain.
The 85th arrived back in England on May 9th 1815.
Robert Gleig : "The Subaltern".
The Reverend George Robert Gleig
After his army service, Gleig entered the church and eventually became Chaplain to the Royal Household and (in 1844) Chaplain General to the Forces.
During his long career, often based at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, he would have seen almost on a daily basis the two American colours - of the Harford Light Dragoons and the James City Light Infantry - taken by the 85th at Bladensburg. Returned to the regiment in 1947, both are now displayed in the Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle.
Gleig wrote two detailed and valuable works on his army career, in the form of "The Subaltern" (1825) about his experiences in Spain and France and in "The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans" (Murray, 1847).
Both have been frequently reprinted (the former as recently as 2001) and large extracts from them may be found in "The 85th King's Light Infantry" by C. R. B Barrett (1912 but recently reprinted).